:::::: PART 1 – Motion Graphic Designer: A Misunderstood Profession

    Graphic Design On The Timeline.

As part of a series of articles, essays and interviews on the topic of motion graphic design, I thought it pertinent to start by tackling one of the great mysteries in the domain – its definition. The search for a clear and undisputed sum of words that pertain to boiling down the sensational effervescence behind motion graphic design today has always been at the back of my mind. Occasionally those thoughts are catapulted to the fore in times of discussion with others or when explanation be needed for laymen and indeed professionals alike. The definition of motion graphic design should be self-explanatory – all the necessary words needed to describe it are part of its morphology. Despite that fact, there is much confusion about what motion graphic design is, and more importantly if we can even consider it as a professional field of work with the accredited title of motion designer.

Before I continue with a brief guided visit amidst the confusion of the misunderstood let me make clear my own objective in publishing these articles. The aim is not to propose another view on motion graphics nor is it to conclude with an all-new shiny 3D spinning definition. Rather, I want to open up the discussion on the subject, encourage critical analysis, debate and thoughtful insight and hopefully rise motion graphics above the unfortunate sensationalism that seems to pour from what little coverage there is in the field. We need more thoughtful discussion and less sensationalism.

Motion graphic design as a term has no clear history. We can perhaps only guess that the first mention of motion graphics came from John Whitney’s company name in the sixties – Motion Graphics Inc. Apart from that apparition though, there is little to claim on how the term arrived and became one of the biggest buzz words of the nineties. That lack of knowledge however is perhaps now, ten years on, proving to risk its demise. Why? Because it appears that being a motion designer is akin to being some sort of schizophrenic chameleon constantly juggling varying professional caps and occasionally spluttering the words title design, Bass and the odd Binder for good measure. The bottom line is no one seems able to clearly express what they do and commit with sincerity and integrity to the title of motion designer. So, does motion graphic design really exist or are we seeing the end of a ‘trend’, a buzz word of the nineties that had some loose connection with the past? The question is perhaps purely rhetorical but I do hope an open debate can ensue.

There are a number of articles, essays, and book prefaces on the subject of motion graphics. Indeed, all maintain the view that this is slippery terrain. However, they all offer essential notions on the subject and more importantly express common ideas that show a firm background in history. One of the first papers to arrive on the web on the subject was Matt Frantz’s thesis that takes both a theoretical and historical approach, drawing example from the work of Saul Bass and the profession of title design. Frantz makes a vague stab at defining motion graphics as “designed non narrative, non-figurative based visuals that change over time.” He goes on to explain and indeed attempt to define the very form of motion graphics within a context of graphic design. His approach is problematic for two major reasons.

Firstly, he limits his historical approach to one single figure, based on the idea that Bass was “the earliest significant motion graphic designer that had a tradition in graphic design.” That very statement has undoubtedly had vast ramifications on people’s perceptions of motion graphic’s history. Many websites hail Saul Bass as the pre-eminent figure of the discipline and consequently this has bonded a cliché tie between the work of title design and motion graphics. The historical context is important but as I have set out to show throughout this blog, many others have contributed to defining the form and discipline. Bass played his role in cementing a firm link within the film industry, his status however in the field has been blown out of proportion. Bass was more a graphic designer than a motion designer (the term ‘motion designer’ having never been assigned to Bass and no doubt didn’t exist as a term until much later). Moreover, the likes of Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttman, Man Ray, Viking Eggeling, Laszlo Maholy-Nagy, Lotte Reiniger, all of whom were pre Bass, had backgrounds or an influence on graphic design and were making images move. Reiniger and Fischinger had both worked in titles or on some sort of moving graphic form for advertising (Muntz TV, 1952, Oklahoma Gas, 1945-50). Reiniger had created hand-cut silhouette titles for Paul Wegener’s film, The Pied Piper of Hamelin in 1918.

Secondly, although he makes the valid point of motion graphics’ inherent link with traditional graphic design, Frantz focuses too much on form and completely by-passes any questioning of the function of the discipline. Non-figurative, non narrative forms sliding across the screen are all very well, but if we do not extrapolate on their visual meaning, intention and context, then they remain just that.

Images Over Time, Matt Soar and Peter Hall. (Eye No 06 Vol 15 Summer 2006), is a brilliantly written, albeit short text that suggests the broader issues of motion graphics within todays creative climate and points more specifically to its rich history, quoting Oskar Fischinger, Lotte Reiniger, Man Ray and others as valuable precursors in the field. The authors point out Louis Sandhaus’ definition from ‘Los Angeles in Motion: A Beginners Guide from Yesterday to Tomorrow.’ (SEGD Journal 2006).

Motion graphics describes a broad field of design and production that embraces type and imagery for film, video and digital media including animation, visual effects, film titles, television graphics, commercials, multi-media presentations
…architecture, and….digital/video games.

Here we have a supple definition of the field that gives a realistic overview of both its scope in terms of media output and its possible professional domains. If we are to believe however in this as a working definition, then motion graphics is indeed an extremely vast area. Moreover, as well as having an extensive reach in terms of professional output, it also suggests expertise, especially on a technical level, of each of those fields of work. As Matt Woolman points out in his book, Motion Design, (Rotovision SA,2004). ‘Motion graphics design is not a single discipline. It is a convergence of animation, illustration, graphic design, …. filmmaking, sculpture and architecture to name but a few.’ This multidisciplinary approach is an essential yet problematic characteristic of the field. The very nature of this openness complicates our search for a clear definition. With so many forms and media to play with, motion graphics could well be anything you want it to be yet that is unfortunately to say nothing about what it really is. That said, Sandhaus’s definition is probably the best and most realistic definition to date.

What could be retained from all this so far, is that we are talking about a field of work that takes root in the elements of (graphic) design and has a wide ranging means for professional output within other creative areas and disciplines. In his preface, Woolman goes on to stress the importance of ‘graphic’, referring to Paul Klee’s notion of point, line & plane, which he says is the premise of motion graphic design. Woolman’s work is an insightful and convincing introduction to what I would like to think motion graphics is about. He lays down the basic foundation of a discipline that clearly is informed by the visual language of graphics, a foundation that is clearly not to be confused, as is often the case, with the language of film. The distinction is important I believe.

Up till this point, neither of our definitions takes into account what motion graphics is actually for. Sure, we have pinpointed some professional domains: title design, broadcast design, vfx. No one though has specifically underlined the function of motion graphics. The answer for me is clearly found with graphic design, a line of creative work that distinguishes itself from other strains of the artistic sphere by a basic premise: to communicate clearly and effectively a message in line with a given client brief. Graphic designers are first and foremost concerned with informing or to varying degrees inferring a message. There is a line of thought here that can be applied to exactly what motion graphics should be about. Whether it appears as part of an identity for a television program, the opener to a film, the menu to a dvd or an interactive page from the Web, the basic premise remains the same. There is always a fine line here between entertainment and information, aesthetic and functional form, self expression and collective thinking…..etc. The balance however always tilts to informing rather than (self) performing.

The City in Motion – L.A.’s Hyperactive Graphics Scene by Holly Willis is not exactly a stab at defining the form, but it does describe with light-hearted candour a particular scene that is representative of today’s concoction of work for the commercial world and the effervescence of branding. Again, we find numerous common denominators in the article with mention of Saul Bass, Fischinger, Ruttman and the strong link with graphic design. However, her text opens up a whole new dimension of thought and problematic to our conundrum. There is suggestion that motion graphics has not only become blurred in a strain of hybrid form and creation, it has also succumbed to the commercial powers whereby the only defining rule of form and function is to break all rules and create something “new and innovative”

“Branding used to be all about creating “one clear message,” adds Brand New School’s Notaro, shaking his head. “But that one clear message is boring. So we’ve always tried branding a different way. We say, let’s try branding by attitude rather than visuals.”

And this is where motion graphics seems to have lost its footing amidst the almighty commercial forces and the all new moving image culture where hybrid cocktails are fuelling the ‘now look what I can do’ attitude. If we are to follow in the steps of current creative trends, then perhaps motion graphics has found itself sucked into the wider, and evidently more popular, area of the moving image. If this is the case then I can but only assume that motion graphics was never really given the serious attention it needed to stay above and stand out from the rest. If it has merged, if we can only consider it as this constant multitude of hybrid creation, then it seems urgent to address the situation. Otherwise we are letting a strain of the moving image culture get tangled in lax attitudes that in my view will only result in accepting its demise. As Kyle Cooper points out:

“So much of what is called motion design is pushing towards lower-end visual effects and cartooning, leaving behind content, composition, typography and colour choices that make up the foundation of good design.”
Kyle Cooper in ‘Motion by Design’
(S. Drate, D. Robbins, J. Salavetz. Laurence King Publishers 2006).

A question imposes: Do we make a distinction between motion graphics and what has become a wider field of expression: the moving image? Again, this is a question that needs to be addressed.

>>> To be continued……..

>>> Related Article – Simple Motion in Design

>>> Shortly after writing this first article I came across Justin Cone’s poll over at Motionographer.
The many varying replies to this poll clearly outline the problems within the professional domain.